This is audio of a sermon I was privileged to preach this morning for Erlanger Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Erlanger, Kentucky.
Mercifully short mini-sermon from an Easter celebration of scripture, sacrament, and song at the hospital chapel today:
All living things have a survival instinct woven into them. People are no different on that account. It seems, however, that we human beings are the only creatures that know that we will die. That knowledge can feel like the cruelest of jokes the universe has ever played. We try to live lives of purpose, of meaning, to use the tools of our selves and our relationships to craft something real. But then death comes, snuffing out our flames. We don’t see what becomes of our work, of our life, of our love, and the whole notion of there being some purpose, some great meaning to our time in this world begins to smell like a mirage, an illusion.
The disciples of Jesus in the gospel had such great hopes. As he went around the countryside doing good and proclaiming the kingdom of God, as he entered in triumph into the holy city of Jerusalem, they just knew that everything was about to change for the better. This was to be the moment of their salvation. And then he is caught up by the enemy. Caught up by the cycles of arrogance, of injustice, of oppression. Caught up by the chief priests, yes, by the Empire, yes, but also by the greatest and most powerful of all tyrants: Death itself. And it is all over. Hope has come to nothing.
But that is not the end of the story.
For the Christ we meet in the gospel is risen, never more to die. The enemy is vanquished. Christ, the firstborn of the dead. Christ, who ransoms us from the powers of the age. Christ, who is God’s own way of reconciling us to the divine self, of reaching down and bringing us into the divine reality.
In conversation with the grand story of Christ’s resurrection, we take strength to live in the faith that life need not be without meaning, that WE need not be without meaning. And we meet the risen Christ in all those things we use to craft meaning in our own lives. We meet the risen Christ in the sacred story, sacrament, and solidarity of our faith. We meet the risen Christ in the beauty of nature returning to life in springtime, in art and music and literature, in the ecstasy of falling in love, in the mundane work of being family. Most powerfully, we meet the risen Christ when we heed the message of the gospel that the life most fully and most vibrantly lived is the one in which we give of ourselves in loving service to others, especially those who are the most needy and those who are the least loved. May we be strengthened by our gathering around the Lord’s table today to renew our commitment to this gospel life.
In the current cartoonishly polarized political climate, it seems that one without strong opinions is simply not paying attention. I encounter perspectives that are not only different than mine, but that seem obviously poised to make the world a much worse place, people elevated to positions of power that seem obviously incompetent. I hear the voices of those who support these people, these perspectives, and I find them exasperating. I can’t understand how anyone doesn’t see what I see and, in my stubborn humanness, I want to get angry or to ridicule. My monkey mind grasps at cheap and easy explanations: capital-T They must be wicked or stupid. And in that moment, whatever Their people and policies may or may not achieve, I have indeed made the world worse.
If ever there was an unsympathetic Them, a Them whose ideals were destructive, whose rhetoric inexcusable, it’s the Westboro Baptist Church. In this moving and very important TED talk, Megan Phelps-Roper shares the story of her transformation from Westboro hatemonger into an apostle of empathy. Scorning and mocking her didn’t make her change. People deciding that because her ideals and rhetoric were toxic–as they were–that her reasons for espousing them didn’t matter didn’t make her change. Writing her off as wicked or stupid didn’t make her change. What made her change was being engaged where she was, person to person. Without ever pretending that Westboro’s message was acceptable, people took the risk of getting to know her. Her enemies took on flesh, as it were, and dwelt with her.
My gut remains a very human gut, so I can’t promise my thoughts on those who espouse a different politics than I do these days won’t ever again go to an unhelpful place, nor even that I won’t ever again lose my temper and speak carelessly–I am, after all, a hairy red person whose mouth runs substantially faster than his brain, which has still not left 1995. But I hope to keep trying to engage and understand what leads good people to embrace what seem to me to be obviously bad ideas. And I’ll keep wondering what cherished ideas of mine I’ll one day look back on and think were obviously bad.
This is adapted from a sermon I preached today at the hospital chapels in Lexington.
Imagine that you’re sitting in church on Sunday morning. The preacher has just got started—you’re not even checking your watch yet—and in walks a man carrying a bucket of peanuts. He plops down next to you and starts going to town, cracking open the peanuts, gobbling them up, and tossing the shells on the floor. When I imagine this, I envision turning my head 360 degrees—Exorcist style—to give him a seriously dirty look. I can even imagine mean old Chaplain Jeff pulling him aside and explaining to him what he’s doing wrong.
And what is he doing wrong? He’s not killing anybody, of course, but we have rules, after all. They may be unwritten—there’s no stone tablets explaining that church isn’t the Lonestar Steakhouse—but we have a certain way of doing things, and this man’s behavior is simply outside of the bounds of our rules.
Now imagine that he begins to share his story. He shares that his parents died when he was a child, that he got mixed up in drugs as a youngster, that it has really messed with his head. He shares that he’s lost and lonely, that his struggles make most people want to turn the other way, and that those who do bother to speak to him mostly just give him lectures about society’s rules that he can’t quite seem to understand. Then he shares that he hasn’t been in a church since he was a child and that he thought maybe, just maybe, he might find some people here who would accept him as he is, who might welcome him and in whose fellowship he might start to rebuild his life.
Well, in this—I promise—imaginary story, guess who now feels about three inches tall? Mean old Chaplain Jeff.
Jesus gives us a mighty tall order today (Matthew 5:38-48). “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.” If Jesus told me to sit at the piano until I figure out how to play the Hymn to Joy, I’d starve to death before I figured it out, because I haven’t touched a piano a day in my life. Yet I’d still knock that one out long before I began to live up to a call to be perfect if perfection is understood as following all the rules without any misstep.
Rules, laws play an important role in our lives. We often hear people speaking of us as a people of laws, a nation of laws. I’m sure they mean well when they say that, but I’d like to suggest that that’s not the case at all. I wear glasses, and my vision is so bad that I desperately need them. Without them, the world is a blur of unrecognizable colors and shadows. I’d be lost and maybe dead without them. There is a woundedness in my power of sight that my glasses help to correct, to guide me when I’m fixing to—maybe even literally—fall off a cliff. But my glasses don’t define me. They don’t make me who I am. I am a person with glasses, but I am not a person of glasses. In the same way, I’d offer that we are a people, a nation with laws, with rules that nudge us in the right direction when we’re liable to stray. But we are not a nation of laws.
Instead, as Christians, we are called to be a people of love. Rules, laws are valuable only insofar as they empower us to become just that. In themselves, they have about as much value as my glasses do when sitting unused on my night stand.
The heart of biblical law is love: love God and love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18). Jesus in the biblical story did not come to abolish the law. He didn’t come to enforce the law, either, but to fulfill it by setting the example of complete, self-giving love. Perfection is not following all the rules for the sake of rules. The perfection advocated by Jesus is being authentic, being whole, being complete persons of integrity in ourselves and among each other. We find that wholeness, not in isolation, not by ourselves, looking out for what we think is in our own best interest, but by being in a relationship of gratitude, and of self-giving love with God, with ourselves, with our environment, and with one another.
If you’ve ever had the misfortune of stepping barefoot on a Lego building block, you know that there are few greater agonies known to man. That tiny, rectangular block has the power to send inexplicable shockwaves of devastation into the bare human foot. When foot meets Lego, the result is always Lego, 1, foot, 0. We suffer, and the Lego goes on about its business like nothing happened. The simple, obvious lesson is that people aren’t Legos.
Since we’re not Legos, we don’t grow just by adding pieces to ourselves. The great and beautiful mystery of this adventure we call human life is that we grow, we become more whole, more complete by giving away and sharing parts of ourselves with others.
Jesus calls us to offer ourselves to one another, to be built up and made perfect by celebrating the gift that is our life by becoming gift to others, by being people and a people that welcomes and cares for not only those we know, those we like, those who make us comfortable, but those who are different, those who are strangers, those who frighten us.
Rules, laws are there to guide us in our journey toward more perfect love, but there are merely pointers, merely signs along the way. They are not the destination. Laws cannot make us perfect, they cannot make us whole, and laws cannot be allowed to get in way of the Law, the call to be in loving harmony with all creation, with God, and with one another.
Of the four gospels, Matthew’s is the account of Jesus’ ministry that is the most inspired by the ancient Law of Moses, that values laws the most, that raises a cautious eyebrow at the more freedom-focused thought of the Apostle Paul, yet even there, in such a Torah-centered gospel, when Jesus encounters people focused on following the rules and overlooking the greater, divine Law of perfect love, he does not hesitate to say, “you have heard it said ‘so and so’—said in the Bible, no less—“but I say unto you, no. Love one another.”
This sentiment was beautifully encapsulated by St. Augustine long ago: “Inasmuch as love grows in you, in so much beauty grows; for love is itself the beauty of the soul. Once for all, then, a short precept is given thee: Love, and do what you will.”
In our imaginary story of the man with the peanuts, mean old Chaplain Jeff may have been a stickler for the rules, but in being so I fell further from the perfection modeled by Jesus, while our poor, broken guest, reaching out in vulnerability, searching for meaning and love, was well on his way.
This is a lecture I gave in 2013 in a course on the Wisdom Literature, examining the Book of Ecclesiastes in light of the Occupy Wall Street movement. The course was taught by the Rev. Dr. Damien Dietlein, OSB–or, as we called him, “Damo”–, a legend at Saint Meinrad and a biblical scholar of the highest caliber and a minister of the deepest love. Studying under such a giant is among the greatest honors of my life.
The Occupy movement seemed to die not with a bang but a whimper, but, in light of the current climate, I can’t help but wonder if that whimper doesn’t camouflage a bang still waiting to get rebung. But what do I know?
References in the lecture to Támez are to Elsa Támez. “Ecclesiastes: a Reading from the Periphery.” Interpretation: A Journal Of Bible & Theology 55, no. 3 (July 2001): 250-259. References to Seow are from Choon-Leong Seow’s Anchor Bible: Ecclesiastes.
..then what you’re gonna want to do is write a 2016 doctoral dissertation on my main man, Rev. W. Norris Clarke, S.J. (1915-2008), have it available for free online, and have me discover it earlier today by total surprise. That’s just what John J. Winkowitsch has done with his W. Norris Clarke’s Relational Metaphysics: Being and Person from Catholic University of America. Clarke first came on my radar about ten years ago in an undergrad course in metaphysics through his 2000 magnum opus The One and the Many, and his thought has done more to shape–not dictate–my own than any other thinker I’ve been exposed to in my adult life. Sadly, Fr. Clarke passed away not long after I first learned of his work, so I never had the chance to meet him.
Yes, I see my typo in “Person-to-Person.” No, I’m not fixing it. You lose some.
Winkowitsch’s dissertation is pretty much what I’ll be up to for the next few days. From the abstract:
William Norris Clarke firmly placed “person” at the core of his philosophy. He spent much of his career attempting to develop a Thomistic metaphysics that took into account phenomenological insights into the nature of person as relational. His life-long philosophical project was an attempt to articulate a Thomistically-inspired relational metaphysics that united the scholastic notion of person as substance with the phenomenological notion of person as relation. The final result of Clarke’s creative retrieval of Thomas Aquinas was, in his own words, the personalization of being itself from within Thomistic metaphysics, such that the ultimate meaning of existence is person-to-person gift and the ultimate key to the mystery of existence is interpersonal love.
For more sweet, sweet Norris Clarke nuggets online, Fordham has the full text of The Philosophical Approach to God available. And justifying the existence of the Internet in its entirety, below are two videos of Clarke in conversation with another favorite philosopher of mine, the late James Arraj. (For those keeping score, I’m more inclined to Arraj’s take on relational realism, which follows William Carlo and leans heavily on the relational as what is real, denying essence any objective existence at all. I know–just wait’ll all the single the ladies hear about that!)